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The Problem of Evil

September 23, 2009
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Monotheistic religions have always struggled to explain the existence of evil.  In religions with more than one god, it’s easy: some of them are dicks.  You can’t really get people to worship only one deity if he is understood to be a jerk.  Instead, words like “loving” and “merciful” are tossed around far more than “rage-a-holic” and “Cheneyesque”.

The religious pursuit of explaining the problem of evil is called theodicy, and there have been some pretty neato attempts at it over the years.  For example, mystical Judaism teaches that the world consists of several spiritual levels; the one we occupy is the furthest removed from the gnarly level inhabited by god. One wonders exactly whose ass this idea was pulled out of.  I picture a wizened Orthodox man, his back crooked from a lifetime of poring over holy books and commentaries thereon, coming to the conclusion one day that they’re all full of shit so he might as well make up a story, too.

Biblical Christianity generally teaches that evil came to the world when Satan tempted Eve who tempted Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  There are a few clear problems with this.  First, how can the knowledge of evil as encapsulated in the tree’s fruit pre-date evil itself?  Second, if Adam and Eve didn’t have the knowledge of evil, how could they know it was evil to disobey god by eating the fruit?  Third, if god’s creation was all “very good”, where did Satan and the potential to do evil come from?

These problems are typically dismissed with a hand-waving invocation of free will.  God wouldn’t be pleased by good acts if humans weren’t able to do bad.  As for the narrative inconsistencies, well whatever.   Here’s a shiny object to look at.

So anyhow, there’s been some interesting discussion of this online recently.  Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog has done a wonderful job compiling the back-and-forth in his refutation of Andrew Sullivan’s nonsensical take on the issue.

Oh yeah – a fourth problem is that the story is fictional.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. JoJo permalink
    September 23, 2009 11:56 am

    my two favorite sentences/ sentence clumps:

    “Monotheistic religions have always struggled to explain the existence of evil. In religions with more than one god, it’s easy: some of them are dicks. You can’t really get people to worship only one deity if he is understood to be a jerk.”

    and

    “I picture a wizened Orthodox man, his back crooked from a lifetime of poring over holy books and commentaries thereon, coming to the conclusion one day that they’re all full of shit so he might as well make up a story, too.”

    that’s some good stuff there. good stuff.

  2. Dan permalink
    September 28, 2009 1:59 pm

    Well isn’t the devil kind of a dick?
    On a more serious note though I always thought of god as not a big micromanager. Seriously with the whole universe going on he has to still weigh in on every single things that happened? I think that god is obsessed with every little or big thing that happens to us is a little narcissistic.
    I think of a grand omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent deity more someone who bought the ant farm and puts in ant food once a week, but is a lot more laissez-faire on the day to day goings on. But maybe this says more about my relative ability to keep an ant colony alive than man’s hope for a non-dickish deity.

    • Barry permalink*
      September 28, 2009 2:05 pm

      The point you raise about the Devil is an interesting. Certainly, conservative Christians think of him as god-like.

      Your point is a deistic one; you’re essentially describing the “winds up the clock and lets it run” god who has been pretty revered since at least the late 18th century. Spinoza’s and Einstein’s god.

      Seems like a nice enough deity, but not falsifiable enough for my tastes.

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